Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 02:29 | SYDNEY
Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 02:29 | SYDNEY

Coral reefs critical to maritime security

5 February 2010 10:11

I have always thought that marine biology sounded like a pretty good career choice. 

Though fate took me elsewhere, this might explain why, while the RAN Sea Power Conference debated some big military-strategic questions, I skipped out for a period to attend a Maritime Advancement Award presentation by Dr Alison Jones of Central Queensland University, on the world-leading work she and her colleagues have just completed on marine refuges in the Great Barrier Reef.

Such research is clearly pertinent in Australia, by providing policy-makers with quality analysis on how best to husband biosystems crucial for tourism, professional fishing and recreational fishing. But it struck me as important at the international policy level because of the opportunity it creates to assist our Pacific and Southeast Asian neighbours in securing their marine resources. For them, maritime eco-sustainability is synonymous with economic survival.

These nations have insufficient resources to patrol all of their reef space: few surface patrol vessels, minimal if any maritime aerial surveillance, and challenges in networking and information technology. Many of the world's other reefs have been irreparably damaged, meaning the Pacific has global importance at a time when parts of it have the highest proportion of species facing extinction.

And even with cooperative approaches under frameworks like the Niue Treaty Subsidiary Agreements (as reaffirmed by Pacific Island Forum members at Cairns last year), there are simply too few resources to protect everything. Research such as this could help prioritise the scant assets available for protecting those reefs that are the 'key terrain' of marine ecology.

This is not simply neighbourly bonhomie: a collapse in the biodiversity of a neighbouring marine space could remove a vital hatchery, breeding site or migratory stage point in marine food chains that reach Australia. It's therefore in our direct interest to help in preventing such collapses.

The study by Dr Jones and her colleagues analysed the survival and propagation potential of specific corals and their zooxanthellae symbionts, determining which offered the best investment for future-proofing the wider reef's viability. I was engrossed by the biochemistry behind the work (see articles here and here for background) but the important point here is the policy implications.

Changes in temperature, acidification and dissolved inorganic nitrogen from land runoff continue to occur at unprecedented rates (it's the rate of change, not the magnitude, that makes such changes a killer). By isolating and comparing select criteria that determine which coral reef areas are most resilient to change in environmental conditions, and which are the most diverse and productive, the research offers a solid scientific basis for Australia's international partners to prioritise resources and protect reefs that will act as 'stationary arks' for a climatically grim future. 

As a focus for development assistance, Australia could do much worse than to provide funding, expertise and technical support on marine refuge analysis to nations whose sustainability as viable countries might depend on it.

Initiatives of this style could offer as many opportunities for host country development as for the Australian participants, by deepening the research base and generic understanding. Initiatives could be conducted with other bodies that have a related focus, such as the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, the Nouméa-based Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, and the Forum Fisheries Agency

The Asian Development Bank-Global Environment Facility's joint-sponsored Coral Triangle Initiative, or perhaps even the Pacific Patrol Boat Program might assist in take-up and broadening the investment return.

Photo, of a researcher in the Keppel Region, Great Barrier Reef, courtesy Dr A Jones, CQU.